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Tallis in Wonderland

I Kid You Not: Knowingness and Other Shallows

Raymond Tallis dives in head first.

“You’ve heard about some of these pet projects, they don’t really make a whole lot of sense and sometimes dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.”
Governor Sarah Palin, October 27th, 2008.

Sarah Palin is on the stump, rousing the faithful in support of the causes, the values and the world picture for which she and true Republicans everywhere stand. She is against big government because this means high taxes squandered on projects that bring no conceivable benefit to anyone apart from those who are paid out of those taxes. An example occurs to her: fruit fly research in Paris (adding, ‘France’, in case her audience may have thought she was talking about Paris Texas or Paris Hilton). Pause for audience laughter. And then she adds (and you can almost see the famous wink, though it is not there on the video), “I kid you not.”

There is probably little point in explaining to someone who (so the story goes) thinks that ‘Africa’ is a country, that she could not have chosen a less telling example. Research on fruit flies – which has been conducted for over a century, and not just in Paris, France – has been an enormously fertile source of knowledge and insights. It has cast light on mutations, on evolution, on the expression of genes and the interaction between genes and the environment, and in my own field, on the mechanisms of ageing. As Adam Rutherford of the Guardian pointed out, the fruit fly is on a par with the mouse as the founding model organism for the field of genetics. It is more useful to instead reflect on the phenomenon of ‘knowingness’ and other shallows in our consciousness, to which we are all prone. For Palin’s confident howler is a perfect illustration of the connexion between knowingness and lack of knowledge: the less you know, the less you will be aware of your ignorance. The familiar metaphor is that the wider the circle of our knowledge, the greater its contact with the unknown, and the more oppressive our feeling of cognitive inadequacy. By contrast, a small mind finds a small world to match it, and the smaller the mind the more it feels it has the world sussed.

Knowingness should be of interest to philosophy if only because it is the obverse of the anguished sense of uncertainty that drives philosophy’s primary discipline – epistemology, the scrutiny of knowledge itself. To complement a philosophy of knowledge, we need, perhaps, a philosophy of knowingness; or more, broadly, a philosophy of our shallows – of triviality, boredom, indifference, pettiness. For example, the macro-ethical debate around moral principles might be enriched by taking account of the micro-ethical environment of rudeness and courtesy, irritability and forbearance, in which moral principles are implemented.

This is not an entirely novel suggestion. The Oxford moral philosopher Philippa Foot wrote about rudeness, and some of Heidegger’s profoundest writings were triggered by meditating on boredom. By all means mock Sarah Palin’s confident ignorance. But then think about it – at least before throwing a second stone.

The best hook for further reflection is her semi-humorous “I kid you not.” It says, “I know that, being a sensible, right-thinking person like me you may not believe this – but it is true.” It binds the speaker and her hearers into an ‘epistemic community’, affirming cognitive solidarity. This is linked to a wider, unspoken solidarity with a constituency out there of the like-minded. Employing the catchphrase “I kid you not” (associated with Jack Paar, the inventor of the talk show, though he possibly got it from the novelist Damon Runyon) adds more psycho-social glue. A shared cultural reference, it reinforces the warrant that comes from being established as a regular guy talking to others who feel themselves spoken to as regular guys. Knowingness feels most at home with itself when it is insulated from reflexion by such layers of confirmation coming from others. It also carries an air of cognitive privilege. Reinforced by the wink, the finger tapping the nose, the complacent smirk, it lays claim to the superior condition of the one who is ‘in the know’. There are some who seem permanently in the know and – especially when their ‘expertise’ lies in conspiracy theories, or ‘women’, or ‘men’, or ‘sex’ – they are insufferable. (Given the choice between passive smoking and passive smirking, I know which one I’d opt for.)

While disgust and contempt are understandable responses to knowingness and other shallows, a philosophical response is closer to awe. For these shallows offer a portal of entry into the many-layered mystery of human consciousness; in particular to the extraordinary fact that most of the time we feel so cognitively at home in the world – to the point where we seem to ourselves to be able to gather up and pass judgement on huge swathes of it (as I discussed in ‘The Professor of Data-Lean Generalisations’ in Philosophy Now Issue 68). And this truly is a mystery. We have little understanding of our own nature, no clear indication of why and how we came into being as conscious agents, and no idea what happens to us when we duck out of the light into permanent darkness. We are surrounded by evidence of our own ignorance. How then can we pitch our tents of everyday knowingness on the shifting sands of this condition, in which we are thrown into a world most of which comes to us as a cacophony of rumours?

In some respects, it is fortunate that we do. As we walk, run, or dash to our goals – large, small, interim, final – we must do so on the ground of the taken-for-granted. Much of what’s taken-for-granted is based upon quite high-level assumptions; and also upon the second-order assumption that other people share our assumptions. When we come across someone who does not share those assumptions, it can be a shock – the psychological equivalent of kicking a hat in which a prankster has hidden a brick. Besides, much knowingness is neither exceptionally ignorant nor particularly complacent. Not all mouths are fonts of Palinisms. Knowingness often merely takes the form of simply passing on, mirroring or echoing what is ‘common knowledge’, what ‘they say’.

Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) deals with this ubiquitous mode of knowingness. It’s a pity it provoked him into the adverse judgement that those whose thoughts are ‘they-thoughts’ have lapsed into ‘inauthentic being’. In fact, there is no clear boundary between, on the one extreme, the they-talk necessary for survival, and on the other, the abject existential capitulation to the unexamined life which is inauthenticity. The they-talk required to catch a bus, to work as part of a team, to be a successful farmer, or to be a pleasant companion on a journey, is pretty extensive. ‘Gassing’ encompasses the bonhomie, camaraderie, the kindness of the decent person who wants to make us feel at home. At a more profound level, ‘they-talk’ is an expression of one’s membership of an epistemic community, itself a condition of keeping one’s grip on a responsible life. Hence the necessity of being something of a ‘ditto head’.

In any case, there is nothing commonplace about commonplaces. There is unimaginable complexity in the processes by which our individual consciousnesses are pooled into a shared community of understanding. We’re inducted into a world collectively articulated to the point where we’re willing and able to purvey inaccurate commonplaces with the aim of making ourselves more acceptable to those around us by dissolving our singularity into a saucerful of tepid togetherness. And this is part of a greater mystery: that of how, given the extraordinary nature of the human condition, and the brilliant and sometimes catastrophic development of our collective consciousness through history, we can pass so much of our time not merely in the grip of an unexamined life, but bathing in its warm shallows.

This mystery is replicated in the everyday tragedy of speech: how this exquisite sculpturing of the air (with its complex phonology, phonetics, phonemics, morphophonemics, syntactics, semantics, semantic syntax, pragmatics, stylistics, sociolinguistics, physics, neurology, sociology, and the anthropology necessary to transmit precise meanings) is often mere prattle or yakking – a means by which one person bores another. The melancholy reduction of so many miracles to a vehicle for staleness is replicated again and again, in just the way that the genius which has gone into the wonderful artifacts which populate our environment is often subordinated to unworthy ends. Words are bounced off satellites thousands of miles up in the sky so that one person can rabbit on to another about nothing in particular.

Even so, seen in the right light, the emptiest conversation is extraordinary. One person turns to another and between infectious yawns asserts that “Really, the world has gone quite mad.” How can we emit a world-encompassing claim as a casual aside? The flawed genius of language, the premier instrument of our collectivized consciousness, is to give us the ability to encompass in a virtual way huge territory that we could not otherwise experience or interact with. The central feature of language – that we seem to get hold of things via their general classes – is the key to this. When I say “dog” I do not take hold of any particular dog, but I have brought into play the totality of dogs available for my characterization. Thinking about this gives us a new angle on the venerable philosophical problem of universals – on the mysterious relations between singular objects and the general terms through which we take hold of them – and further, on what Slavoj Zizek has called ‘the violence of language’ (which, incidentally, licenses other modes of violence).

In short, properly reflected upon, knowingness and other shallows shine a light into the depths of our uniquely human consciousness, and upon the processes by which individually we make this world, that vastly outsizes us, our own place. More generally, we may learn as much from reflecting on the stupid and empty things we say as from those that seem wise and profound. Seeing the mystery of the unmysterious, the uncanny nature of the banal, should enable us to wake up a little from our ordinary wakefulness. Start investigating the shallows and you will soon be out of your depth.

I kid you not.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2009

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His book The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Round Your Head is published by Atlantic.

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